The Uighur Autonomous Region is located in the far northwestern region of China. Known as Xinjiang Province to the Chinese, and East Turkestan to the Uighurs, it is the home to approximately 19 million people, 8.4 million of whom are Uighurs(or Uyghurs, pronounced as WEE-Gur), a Turkic Muslim people who have resided in the region for four thousand years. The region is also home to thirteen different ethnic minority groups, including Kazaks, Mongols, Han, Manchu and Hui, amongst others.
Bordered on the south by Tibet, on the north by Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan, and on the west by the countries of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, the location of the Uighur Autonomous Region is of great strategic importance to China.
Consisting of 1.6 million square kilometers and comprising one-sixth of China’s total land mass, the region is rich in natural resources of oil, gas, precious metals and agriculture along with an abundance of grasslands and rivers.
China is developing oil pipelines and infrastructure projects that run through the region and into Shanghai in the east and to its Central Asian neighboring countries in the west such as Kazakstan. The region is also the site used for China’s nuclear weapons testing. Historically, the U.A.R. has been a major trade route linking China with Central Asia and Europe. The famous “Silk Road” runs through the region.
The remote landscape of the Uighur Autonomous Region is dominated by three basins with mountain ranges separating them. The Tarim Basin in the south contains the vast Taklimakan Desert, a 327,000 square kilometer barren wasteland that is the site of the region’s oil resources. Several oases ring the desert region and these have become the site of human settlements developed over hundreds of years; they now form the major towns and cities of Kashgar, Turpan, Aksu and Urumqi, the capital city of the province.
In their study of the political and cultural history of the region, James Millward and Peter Perdue discuss the history of the Uighurs:
The tribes known by the term “Uyghur” had formerly been components of the Turk empire or khanate. With other tribes, the Uyghurs overthrew the Turk ruling house and in 744 established an empire of their own based in central Mongolia that eventually extended into northwest China. . . . The dynasty of Uyghur kings based in the Kucha-Turpan-Hami area from the ninth through the thirteenth century proved longer-lived than any other power in the region, before or since. . . . Though Uyghuristan (as later Islamic sources would call it) was not able to resist new powers arising to the east, it proved adept at accommodating to them. In 1209, the Uyghur state submitted promptly to the rising Mongol empire. . . The Uyghurs provided Genghis Khan’s empire with literate officials and a writing system and thus exercised an important cultural influence on the Mongol state. (Millward/Perdue 41)In the late nineteenth century the Chinese took over the Uighur region but revolts and uprisings continue onto the present. The Uighur people refer to their plight as similar to that of the Tibetans, except that the Uighurs are less known. Diaspora Uighur communities have sprung up in Europe and the United States and are seeking to raise awareness about the history of oppression that has plagued their people.
In an essay posted by the World Uyghur Congress, which is based in Germany, Fahad Ansari summarizes the recent history:
The Uighurs ruled an independent kingdom, with a mixed Muslim and Buddhist population, that stood until 1759, when the Manchu Chinese invaded and destroyed it. In the revolt of 1864, the Uighurs were successful in expelling the Manchu from East Turkestan, and founded the independent Kashgaria kingdom under the leadership of Yakub Beg. This kingdom was recognized by the Ottoman Expire, Tsarist Russia and Britain. In 1876, a large Manchu force, with the aid of the British, once again attacked and conquered East Turkestan. After this invasion, East Turkestan was renamed “Xinjiang”, which means “New Territory”, and it was annexed by the Manchu Empire on November 18, 1884. What followed were several rebellions by various Uighur movements. . . With the rise of the Communist Party in China in 1949, however, the most brutal chapter in the history of the Muslims of Xinjiang commenced. After occupying the province in the 1950s, the Communists began a program of settlement of Han Chinese in Xinjiang in a process of colonization to secure, control and exploit the region. Today the Han population has risen from just over 6 percent of the region’s population in 1949 to about 40 percent now. (Ansari)Against the backdrop of exploitation of the region’s natural resources, and the in-migration of Han Chinese, who have prospered comparatively to the region’s indigenous people, the Uighur Autonomous Region has seen a rise in resentment towards its Chinese rulers.
The events of September 11, 2001 were the beginning of a new era of oppression towards the Uighur Muslim people in China. The government has used 9/11 as an excuse to label separatist groups as “terrorists” and to inflict harsh punishment towards any form of criticism or desire for independence. Similar to its treatment of Tibet, the Chinese government is not showing any indication that it will ease up on its repressive tactics to keep minority groups in line. The Amnesty International Annual Report describes the situation in China in 2008 as follows:
The authorities continued to use the US-led “war on terror” to justify harsh repression of ethnic Uighurs, living primarily in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, resulting in serious human rights violations. Non-violent expressions of Uighur cultural identity were criminalized. Uighur individuals were the only known group in China to be sentenced to death and executed for political crimes, such as “separatist activities.” China increasingly successfully used the Shangai Cooperation Organization to pressurize neighboring countries, including Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, to co-operate in forced returns of Uighurs to China. (Amnesty)Until only a few weeks ago, the United States had been holding seventeen men from the Uighur region in the prison at Guantanomo Bay. They were captured in the Tora Bora Mountains of Afghanistan after the US invasion. For seven years, though it was known that they were not terrorists and were no threat to the United States, efforts to free them were complicated by the fact that returning them to China was not an option. On October 7, 2008, in a landmark decision, Judge Ricardo Urbina of Federal District Court ordered that the men should be brought to Washington, D.C. to his courtroom where he would release them (Glaberson, New York Times). The Uighur diaspora living in Washington, D.C. were ready to take the men into their community, but the US government subsequently filed an appeal blocking their release from the prison. They were finally given their freedom in June 2009 and relocated to Bermuda and Palau.
Nurmuhemmet Yasin is a 34-year-old writer from the Uigher Autonomous Region in north western China. An award-winning writer, he is the author of the poetry collections First Love, Crying from the Heart, and Come on Children. According to PEN USA, Yasin is married with two young sons.
In 2004, Yasin wrote a short story titled “Wild Pigeon” which was published in the Kashgar Literature Journal and recommended for the highest literary award in the Uigher Region. The story is narrated by a young wild pigeon who is seeking to find a new homeland for his tribe of wild pigeons. The story drew the attention of the Chinese authorities who took it to be a criticism of their government. Yasin and his editor, Korash Huseyin, were arrested in Kashgar on November 29, 2004. Yasin was sentenced to ten years in prison and he has not been allowed any visitors since his arrest. Yasin is reported to be held in Urumqui No. 1 Prison, and not due for release until 2014.
A report by the group Human Rights in China (HRIC) dated August 24, 2007, called for the Chinese government to release details of Yasin’s condition. The HRIC reported that they had unconfirmed reports that Yasin had been tortured to death in prison and that their attempts to contact his family were unsuccessful. In email correspondence received on October 14, 2008, the Uygher Human Rights Project, an arm of the Uyghur American Association based in Washington, D.C., indicated that they believe that Nurmuhemmet Yasin is still alive, however they are unable to confirm where he is being held, or his condition. The English, American PEN and Independent Chinese PEN Centres have made Yasin an honorary member and have drawn attention to his imprisonment. HRIC, as part of a year- long campaign to bring attention to Chinese prisoners and coinciding with the 2008 Beijing Olympics, featured the case of Nurmuhemmet Yasin on its website in December 2008. Amnesty International and the group Reporters Without Borders have also reported on his case. In a report dated January 19, 2005, the Uyghur American Association/Uyghur Human Rights Project wrote:
The arrest of Nurmuhemmet Yasin by the Chinese authorities is a clear violation of the freedom of speech, expression and conscience. Nurmuhemmet Yasin did not commit a crime. He is a writer, and published his story in an official Chinese literary journal. This is another example of how the Chinese authorities are stepping up their campaign against Uyghur intellectuals.The short story “Wild Pigeon” has been translated into English and is available for download on the website of Radio Free Asia. There is no doubt that the story’s theme parallels the plight of a people who have seen their homeland overtaken by force. At one point in the story, the mother pigeon speaks to the young pigeon about the vision he had in a dream:
"Child, in your dream you saw our destiny,” she replies. “Mankind is pressing in on us, little by little, taking up what once was entirely our space. They want to chase us from the land we have occupied for thousands of years and to steal our land from us. They want to change the character of our heritage – to rob us of our intelligence and our kinship with one another. Strip us of our memory and identity. Perhaps in the near future, they will build factories and high-rises here, and the smoke that comes from making products we don’t need will seep into the environment and poison our land and our water. Any rivers that remain won’t flow pure and sweet as they do now but will run black with filth from the factories.” (Yasin qt. in RFA)At the end of the story, the young pigeon chooses to die by eating a poisonous strawberry rather than remain in captivity. Nurmuhemmet Yasin’s father poisoned himself and this coincidence caused the Chinese authorities to claim that the story was a political message inciting separatism.
Nurmuhemmet Yasin is one of over three dozen writers currently held in prison by the Chinese authorities (PEN Center USA). Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights in China, PEN Center USA, PEN American Center, International PEN, Uyghur Human Rights Project, and this writer, all urge the Chinese government to facilitate Mr. Yasin’s immediate and unconditional release. Copyright©KathyStanley. All photos taken in Uighur Autonomous Region.
The author wishes to acknowledge and thank Martha Gies, acclaimed Portland author, writing teacher and long-time human rights advocate, for her inspiring instruction that made this piece of research possible.Copyright©Kathy Stanley.
“2008 Annual Report for China.” Amnesty International. 4 October 2008.
Ansari, Fahad. “The Plight of the Uighurs: China’s Muslims Suffering as much as the Tibetans.” World Uyghur Congress. 5 August 2008. 8 October 2008.
Glaberson, William. “Judge Orders 17 Detainees at Guantanamo Freed.” New York Times. 8 October 2008. 8 October 2008.
“HRIC Statement: Call for Information on Uyghur Writer’s Safety.” Human Rights in China. 24 Aug. 2007. 14 Nov. 2008.
Millward, James A. and Peter C. Perdue. “Political and Cultural History of the Xinjiang Region through the Late Nineteenth Century” Xinjiang: China’s Muslim Borderland. Ed. S. Frederick Starr. New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2004. 27-62.
“UHRP Condemns Arrest of Uyghur Writer/Poet Nurmemet Yasin by the Chinese Government.” Uyghur Human Rights Project. 1 Jan. 2005. 14 October 2008.
Yasin, Nurmuhemmet. “Wild Pigeon.” Radio Free Asia. 14 October 2008.